Susan Sheppard, March 2009 Member of the Month

Our March Member of the Month is Susan Sheppard, owner of WordsRight. She is a skilled copyeditor and proofreader, with an focus on corporate clients. Her love of genealogy and history inspire her personal writing projects. You may read more about her experience and skills at her website and blog. Susan has a reputation for  “above and beyond” service that makes her clients look good, and keeps them coming back, year after year. I think you’ll enjoy meeeting her!

Listen to this interview as a podcast.

Q: Please share a little of your professional history with our readers.

A: I am a “mistake-fixer” for words; I am a proofreader and editor. I work within the wide world of business, specifically for advertising/marketing firms and on newsletters and client alerts for law firms. Although having an ear for the English language is something organically within me, my professional development in proofreading and editing began with my employment at what was then the Virginia State Library (now The Library of Virginia), in the Publications Branch. I later made the jump from proofreading and editing for academia to proofreading for advertising/marketing agencies. Included in the latter is more than a decade of work for The Martin Agency in Richmond, VA, either as a part-time employee or as a freelancer. My doing-business-as name is WordsRight, although I imagine most of my clients simply think in terms of “Susan Sheppard.” My clientele includes or has included other (than Martin) advertising and/or marketing firms, the law firm of Hunton & Williams, nonprofits, local government agencies, an IT security firm….

There are differences between the proofreading of academia and that of the world of business, not the least of which is that the very definition differs! For businesses, the term “proofreading” covers anything and everything from actually comparing one document to another (which is “proofreading” for an academic press) to copyediting to fact checking to editing. And the “due date” for a press or scholarly organization might be several days or weeks away, while for a business, when a job is due is much more likely to be a matter of minutes or hours. Or if one is very lucky, “by tomorrow afternoon.”

Q: Is it important, really, for a company to have things proofread at all, and couldn’t they just have someone within the company check the material?

A: It is very important for companies to have things proofread, whether it be websites or advertisements or client alerts. Not only are those things part of the public face of the company and an error could be costly in terms of public perception (would you want to give your business to a company that erected a billboard with a typo in its own name?), but errors can also result in concrete financial loss.

As for who should check that material, unless they have a proofreader on staff, they should outsource the work to a professional proofreader. It makes a difference for many reasons.

Q: How and when did you make this business a reality?

A: My work grew, and the business evolved, over such a long stretch of time that it’s hard to answer “when” exactly! The beginning of my training and work with proofreading and editing was about 30 years ago, at the Virginia State Library. I resigned from that job, to work with my husband (from home) and to be with our daughter. When I started getting into nonacademic proofreading, I had occasional work from a handful of marketing/advertising agencies in Richmond, to which I added The Martin Agency. The latter eventually became work as a part-time employee for almost five years. I then went back to being totally freelance, keeping Martin as a client, getting gradually more work from those other agencies, and adding other agencies by virtue of recommendations.

Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned thus far in your career?

A: Networking is a very necessary activity, and I’ve got a lot to learn about it!

Q: Are you working on any personal writing projects at this time?

A: I’m working on transcribing two 19th-century county documents, which I then hope to annotate and publish, probably as ebooks.

Q: As a seasoned professional, what advice would you offer an independent writer or editor who is just beginning a career?

A: Is “seasoned professional” another way of saying I’m older than dirt? <G>

Practice your craft, increase your skill level. Determine what your niche will be and concentrate on that; be a specialist, not a generalist. I’ve read, and it’s probably quite true, that the more narrowly defined your niche, the more work you will get.

One of the most helpful things for me in gaining knowledge was reading the entire Chicago Manual of Style (several editions ago). And I recommend keeping up with any reading that is aimed at increasing your skill and knowledge in your field.

Also, one can’t do everything, not only because of lack of time but because one isn’t good at everything. Do what you are good at and outsource what you aren’t.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Income. And freedom.

I love being independent, i.e., freelance, and I wouldn’t want to have to go back to working for a company. That is a big motivation.

I am also motivated to expand the work I can do via the Internet and not have to go in to a place of business, because I want to move “back home,” which is 80 miles away and I really don’t want to commute to Richmond!

It’s not exactly inspiration, but I do like the fixing aspect of what I do. Moving a phrase and suddenly the sentence is easier to understand. Rearrange some sentence structure and suddenly a whole paragraph is understandable, when I’d had to read it five times to get a clue what it meant to be saying! I like making something “better.

Q: How has your membership in NAIWE benefited you professionally?

A: I’ve been able to use the database to find a ready pool of people to refer extra work to, and I’ve actually succeeded in getting my profile and blog post up, even though I’m not technically oriented. The webmaster was very helpful when I got stuck, and I’ve found everyone I dealt with to be very encouraging.

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